In the Spotlight
Associate Professor, University of Texas, El Paso
El Paso, Texas Member Since: 2006
About: Jeff Sirkin grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and he is the author of the poetry collection Travelers Aid Society (Veliz Books 2016). In addition to poetry, he writes on popular music and literature, and his work has appeared in Mandorla; Forklift, Ohio; Puerto del Sol; and elsewhere. Coeditor of the web journal A DOZEN NOTHING, he teaches in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas, El Paso, where he also cocurates the Dishonest Mailman Reading Series.
Photo Credit: Marc Sirkin
If you could require all of your students to read only one book, which would it be?
Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. The Minutemen (punk album), Double Nickels on the Dime. Bikini Kill (punk rock band), all of it. Wait, did you say books? Did you say only one? Not fair! Okay, then, I’ll pick Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
Read. Keep reading. Read more. Pay attention. Write. Write some more. Repeat.
What are you reading right now?
Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century. Samuel Delaney, Dhalgren. C.S. Giscombe, Here and Giscome Road. Fred Moten, The Service Porch. Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band.
What are the goals of your reading series?
When my partner (Rosa Alcalá) and I first came to El Paso, we would talk about how much we missed the many reading series we’d been fortunate to attend at Buffalo, where we’d just moved from, and how much we missed the scene and community those readings inspired. We wanted our own students to have the chance to experience what we’d taken for granted in Buffalo, and we wanted it again for ourselves. Those readings had taken place in attics and bookstore backrooms, in small galleries and living rooms. They were informal and social, with great poetry, interesting conversations. In El Paso, we started at first with a couple of one-off readings, where we invited poet friends who were close by or passing through town to come read for our students and us. That was maybe the third year we were here. From there we came up with a plan for a unified, sustained series, which we called The Dishonest Mailman Reading Series (after the Robert Creeley poem “The Dishonest Mailmen”). It’s been ten years now, dozens of great readings. Our readings have sometimes taken place on campus at UT El Paso, sometimes in our living room or at local bars.
Our goals really have never changed. We want to introduce our students and friends and our community to writers we admire; we want to create a space for dialogue and exchange. We want our students to have the opportunity not just to listen to and buy the books of the visiting poets, but to talk to them, see in the writers we invite a possibility for themselves, to see in poetry not just the creation of pretty objects, but a living form of communication, exchange, activism, and an ongoing conversation of which they are already a part. At the same time, we are very proud of El Paso and the border region, of the community we now call home, and we’re thrilled to introduce our visiting poets to the people and community here.
What are some of the greatest challenges facing small press publishers and editors today?
I can’t speak for publishers and editors of print journals and presses, though I’m sure some of the challenges are the same, chief among them: time. With my friend Pete Miller, I jointly run and coedit an online poetry journal called A Dozen Nothing. We’ve been publishing for three years now, but in the year prior to our debut issue, as we were first thinking about what we wanted the journal to be, we talked quite a bit about the problems we experienced as readers of online material. We talked about the benefits of the online format, too, and there were/are quite a few online journals we both liked—Waxwing Journal, The Volta, and many others. But we kept coming back to one particular concern: keeping a reader’s attention. Poetry and fiction ideally require a kind of attentive and focused reading. So, how do you encourage attentive, focused reading in a medium that by its very nature cultivates distraction, cultivates surface attention, cultivates the click away to the next thing, the next impulse? Not to mention that we both just found it somewhat difficult to read computer screens. And what we finally decided was that we needed to think beyond the standard format for a literary journal. I’m sure we weren’t the first to have this conversation—Eloisa Amezcua’s The Shallow Ends, which features one poem by one poet each week, seemed to emerge from the same impulse and began around the same time as A Dozen Nothing—and I’m sure Pete and I didn’t reinvent the poetry journal. But, the format of our journal emerged from those conversations. A dozen poets. One a month. Nothing More. We feature one poet each month, with anywhere from 5-10 poems (or equivalent pages) from each featured poet. The goal was to keep the journal—and what the reader encounters—focused and readable in one sitting. There’s no splash page, no additional menus one needs to navigate to get to the poems. When a reader clicks over to adozennothing.com, she’ll find the poems from that month’s featured poet. It’s very minimalist. We can’t claim to have solved this particular problem, but the format works for us and our poets.
More generally, and importantly, I’d say there’s the challenge of seeing outside my own narrow point of view, of being open to different perspectives, different aesthetics, different poetics. Fortunately, my coeditor and I are frequently talking about this. One solution for us was to develop a kind of informal system of contributing editors. That is, we often reach out to other poets and publishers for suggestions of poets we could invite to submit work. We’ve found quite a few new poets this way, poets whose work is surprising and challenging, and our journal is better for it.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
Friends. Particularly Evan Lavender-Smith, Richard Greenfield, Pete Miller, Matt Hart, Susan Briante, Farid Matuk. And Rosa Alcalá, my partner.
Who/what do you follow online?
Nothing in particular. I read a lot about popular music, so articles and essays shared by friends via social media, particularly about punk rock and post-punk, contemporary pop, women in music, experimental pop, folk and roots music, jazz.
What was the first book that you loved? The first book that you hated?
There were others I really liked prior, I’m sure, but the first book I read and re-read and re-read until burned into memory was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, that’s a cliché isn’t it? The first grown-up book I really loved, not counting the fantasy books I borrowed from my mom in middle school…? Maybe The Crying of Lot 49? Another cliché, right? But, hey, it’s smart, funny, weird. It was the first book I’d read that brought together pretty much all the weird and arcane things I was into at the time. It’s a hard-boiled detective novel and a rock n roll surf movie and a film noir and a political thriller and a Marx Bros. anarchic (anarchist?) comedy (is there a term for that?) and a Jacobean Revenge drama and a philosophical treatise on popular media and phenomenology and political economy, and a critique of industrial capitalism and/or postmodern consumer culture. And there’s LSD and ancient war movies playing backwards on late night TV and dusty bookstores and forgotten paths to alternate worlds. And, with its female protagonist, it upends all the above and becomes at some fundamental level a critique of patriarchy and the discourses and economics through which patriarchy becomes the master narrative wherein our identities, lives, and the roles and “plots” available to each of us are conceived, written, determined, enforced. Or something like that. Plus, did I say it’s funny? Is it love? I don’t know, I have a hard time expressing my feelings.
On the other hand, I honestly can’t say that I’ve ever “hated” a book. Though, because of the cruelty-and-idiocy-couched-as-self-righteous-economic-“philosophy” it has spawned or encouraged (especially in my college classmate Paul Ryan), I’ll say that I currently hate everything that Ayn Rand ever wrote.
What persons in or aspects of your life’s journey have most profoundly influenced your work?
I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors, both in school and out, that were hugely influential for me, as a writer and thinker and teacher. I had a couple of great teachers in high school, who were thoughtful enough and cared enough to encourage me at a time in my life when I wasn’t much interested in anything remotely academic. Among these was my great photography teacher, Robert Gregory.
In college, at Miami University, I was somewhat lost until finding my way into an American Lit survey (1914-present) with Keith Tuma. Keith introduced me as an undergrad to poetry and fiction that still remains important to me. Just a few things I remember reading with him: WC Williams, Marianne Moore, HD, Thomas Pynchon, Charles Bernstein, Dada. I completely lay the blame for my interest in poetry on Keith Tuma. He’s also the person who encouraged me to apply to MA programs, and, again, later, to the PhD program at Buffalo. While I was working on my MA at Miami, he taught an incredible seminar on the history and theory of the avant-garde, where he encouraged me to write not about poetry, but about punk rock. Which then became the topic of my MA Thesis, which later helped get me into the PhD program at Buffalo, and which also lay the groundwork for some of my thinking in my poetry collection, Travelers Aid Society.
At Buffalo I had many great teachers, including Charles Bernstein. The reading lists in those classes were invaluable to me. One of my biggest influences at Buffalo, though (aside from the incredible scene and so many incredible classmates, not just within the Poetics program, but among the entire Lit and Comp Lit PhD and Media Studies programs), was Professor David Schmid. David’s specialties are British Cultural Studies, crime fiction, and celebrity culture. Why was David so important to my work? Maybe because he helped me see relationships between all my interests: music, poetry, postmodern fiction, theory, genre fiction. Maybe because he is such a brilliant thinker and teacher, with an incredible taste in and knowledge of music. Maybe because he made thinking, writing, and teaching look like so much fun. He was definitely an influence on my thinking and on my teaching, but also, through subterranean channels maybe, my poetry. The people who continue to inspire and motivate and influence me are friends. (I mentioned several of them in answer to another question here). This is the community I turn to for reading suggestions; for advice on a poem; to keep me focused and motivated.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
I’m a writer, and I teach in a Creative Writing department. Why wouldn’t I? Not to mention, the opportunity at the annual AWP conference to meet and befriend writers, editors, and publishers is unparalleled.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
Seattle, 2014. Beer and pizza with Susan Briante and Daniel Borzutzky at some restaurant under Pike Street Market. This was before I’d read anything by Daniel Borzutzky, when to me he was just a friend of Susan’s. I later discovered that he was an astounding writer, but that night I discovered he was hilarious. As is Susan. (Another astounding writer!) I laughed and laughed. The weather was great, cool, misty. Later on I wandered around by myself in the fog and stumbled upon a Japanese hot dog cart, where I ordered a hot dog beyond anything I could’ve imagined to that point. Was it a Matsuri dog? A Samurai dog? Was it good? Who knows. I happily ate it, walked back to the hotel with Japanese mayo on my chin, and ran into my friend Evan at the hotel bar. We stayed up late, shouting to each other over bread, olives, bourbon, and the roar of hundreds of writers. Wait, I think I met the poet Aaron McCullough that night. But that was another bar. Another hotel. Is that possible? I also organized a panel that year on Poetry and Popular Music with three poets I really admire: Julia Bloch, Steve Dickinson, and Matt Hart. A real honor!